Editors

Out & About: Watching De Beers Grow Diamonds in Oregon

EditorsDec 13, 2021

Out & About: Watching De Beers Grow Diamonds in Oregon

Editor-in-Chief Michelle Graff shares her opinions on the state of the lab-grown diamond market following a trip to the Lightbox factory.

The interior of the factory in Gresham, Oregon, where De Beers grows the stones for Lightbox, its lab-grown diamond brand launched in 2018.
In 2008, not even a year into my tenure at National Jeweler, I was invited on a once-in-a-lifetime trip. De Beers invited me to southern Africa to see its mining operations and how they impact the people there.

Some 14 years later, I received another invitation to take a trip with De Beers, this time to observe a different kind of operation—the factory where it grows diamonds outside Portland, Oregon.

I find the science behind growing diamonds much more interesting than all the tedious back-and-forth about lab-grown vs. natural (and I’m forbidden from having that debate anyway, per National Jeweler’s Lenore Fedow).

I think both have, and will continue to have, their place in the industry; what exactly that place will be—the stone of choice for engagement rings, the main driver of fashion jewelry, or some mix thereof—remains to be seen, particularly in this unpredictable climate.

On a personal note, I prefer natural diamonds to lab-grown, particularly for big milestone gifts to myself, though I can see the appeal of lab-grown diamond jewelry for more “fun” pieces, particularly those set with a pink or blue diamond, which are largely unattainable due to their cost.

But those pinks and blues are only part of the production run at the Lightbox, which I visited in early November with a group of journalists on a tour led by the site’s general manager, Adam O’Grady.

Stepping Inside
Lightbox is in Gresham, Oregon, about 25 minutes east of Portland.

De Beers chose Portland because it needed to build the factory somewhere that has a reasonable cost-per-kilowatt for energy, has access to renewable sources of energy, and doesn’t get too hot in the summer.

Portland checks all three boxes, though it’s worth pointing out that the extreme weather patterns brought about by climate change are a concern to Lightbox just as they are a concern to the diamond miners that rely on ice roads. Portland, where it normally doesn’t get much hotter than 75-80° F, saw temps soar past 100° F this past summer.

The Lightbox factory employs about 80 people, 45 of whom are employed in direct production. It’s staffed 24/7 and its reactors run around-the-clock as well.

Mounted at the front entrance to the factory is a massive screen monitoring each reactor. Someone on the tour compared it to the control room on the Starship Enterprise, but as a Star Wars fan I didn’t get the reference.

The screen shows you which reactors in the factory are actively growing diamonds and which are down due to mechanical issues or scheduled maintenance.

For those that are active, the screen shows what they are growing—meaning size and color of diamond—and how much longer they have to cook, so to speak, before the diamonds are done.

How They Grow
The Lightbox factory uses chemical-vapor deposition (CVD) technology to grow diamonds.

CVD is a newer, and more expensive process than the high-pressure, high-temperature (HPHT) method mostly used to grow industrial-grade diamonds.

CVD involves growing substances atom-by-atom on a substrate material. In the case of Lightbox, that substrate material is diamond.

O’Grady told us that De Beers manufactures the substrate it uses for Lightbox diamonds on site, setting aside a small amount of production each day for future diamonds.

The diamond substrate plates are placed on a carrier by a robot, which is quicker and saves the factory’s employees from a tedious task, before they are delivered to their designated reactors.

To transform the plates, which to me look like gray Listerine strips, into actual stones, gases are pumped into each reactor and the machine is heated up to 6,000° C (10,832° F). The mix of gases depends on what the machine is growing: white, pink or blue diamonds.

O’Grady said it takes “a couple hundred hours to grow a couple of hundred stones” and, generally speaking, the bigger the stone needs to be, the longer it has to cook.

Each reactor is equipped with a viewer that allows employees (and curious visitors) to see the diamond substrate plates as they progress throughout the growing process.
Each reactor is equipped with a viewer that allows employees (and curious visitors) to see the diamond substrate plates as they progress throughout the growing process.

Each reactor is equipped with a peephole of sorts that you can look through to see the diamonds as they grow.

These are less necessary than they used to be since each machine is computer-monitored, O’Grady told me, but “people still like looking in them.” (It’s a bit like peeking in the oven to check on your cinnamon rolls; I understand the appeal.)

So, someone asked O’Grady, is the Lightbox factory the most high-tech diamond-growing facility in the world? “I think it’s safe to assume we are at the top end of that table,” he said.

After Growth
Once the diamonds are done, some initial cutting and polishing is done on-site, though the stones are not fully finished there. They are shipped to a cutting and polishing factory in India before being set into jewelry.

The pink and blue stones are HPHT treated post-growth to improve their color saturation and consistency, while all 2-carat and stones for “Finest,” its new premium line, are also HPHT treated to improve their color to D, E or F and their clarity to VVS. De Beers has just begun disclosing these treatments to consumers.

This ring by designer David Klass is one of the one-of-a-kind works Lightbox commissioned to mark the start of its loose diamond sales. Set with a lab-grown pink diamond, it is an example of a piece that makes a diamond that’s unaffordable to many as a natural stone accessible to the masses.
This ring by designer David Klass is one of the one-of-a-kind works Lightbox commissioned to mark the start of its loose diamond sales. Set with a lab-grown pink diamond, it is an example of a piece that makes a diamond that’s unaffordable to many as a natural stone accessible to the masses.

As you might remember, when De Beers launched Lightbox to much uproar at the Vegas shows in 2018, it introduced a strict pricing structure, $800/carat, and said it was marketing it as a “fun” product for somewhat-less-special special occasions, like a Sweet 16, positioning natural diamonds as the stone of choice for more substantial milestones.

In the years since, that uproar has calmed down as the lab-grown diamond market has evolved and the brand has evolved too, expanding beyond its originally declared mission, growing bigger, better diamonds.

The 2-carat diamonds I peeped growing in Portland are a new addition for Lightbox, as is the sale of loose diamonds, and “Finest,” the aformentioned premium line of D-to-F color, VVS diamonds it launched in August. “Finest” diamonds are priced at $1,500/carat.   

 Related stories will be right here … 

I am curious to see where Lightbox, and the lab-grown market, will go from here.
In a forecast published this fall, diamond industry analyst Paul Zimnisky wrote that in the long term, growth in the sector will come mainly in fashion jewelry and industrial diamonds, a forecast I initially agreed with but then began to waver on following some recent headlines. 

Signet Jewelers announced during its Q3 earnings call earlier this month that it is expanding its selection of lab-grown diamonds in some of its bestselling bridal lines.

The Knot’s latest survey showed that people’s stances on lab-grown stones—not just diamonds but moissanite as well—are softening when it comes to engagement rings.

And, as I noted above, De Beers is growing bigger, better diamonds and now also selling loose Lightbox stones, which seem destined for engagement rings. 

While none of this is hard proof of where the market is definitively headed, what is certain is that years from now, people will find it hard to believe there was ever so much debate about lab-grown diamonds.

They’ll be like Prohibition (seems so strange now to think alcohol was once illegal, right?) or cannabis, which in my relatively short lifetime, has gone from being illegal everywhere to being legal in some form in all but 12 states.

People’s perspectives on what’s good or bad, what’s acceptable or unacceptable, are always changing.  What’s hotly debated among members of one generation often isn’t even a point of conversation with the next. 
Michelle Graffis the editor-in-chief at National Jeweler, directing the publication’s coverage both online and in print.

The Latest

Supplier BulletinJun 24, 2022
AGTA GemFair™ Denver is the Place to Be in September!

Sponsored by AGTA

Recorded WebinarsJun 24, 2022
Vegas Jewelry Recap: The Editors Weigh In

Watch the webinar in which National Jeweler’s editors talk about jewelry market week trends and their predictions for the rest of 2022.

MajorsJun 24, 2022
Banter by Piercing Pagoda Celebrates Pride with ‘SayGay’ Necklace

All proceeds up to $25,000 will benefit the It Gets Better Project, a nonprofit that supports LGBTQ+ youth.

Brought to you by
Discover The Extraordinary Italian Jewelry In Las Vegas!

Experience all the Italian Jewelry market has to offer in Las Vegas.

CollectionsJun 24, 2022
Piece of the Week: Marie Lichtenberg’s Hidden Message Locket

It’s a reminder that life is best lived with discretion.

Weekly QuizJun 23, 2022
This Week’s Quiz
Test your knowledge of the latest jewelry news with this quick test.
Take the Quiz
TechnologyJun 24, 2022
Cloud-Based POS Software Jewel360 Launches for Jewelry Retailers

The end-to-end software allows for real-time control over all sales, inventory, repairs, customer communications, and marketing.

GradingJun 23, 2022
AIGS Launches Grading Report for ‘Santa Maria’ Aquamarine

The Asian Institute of Gemological Sciences aims to set a color standard for the trade name.

Brought to you by
3 Reasons to Offer Estate Buying at Your Store

Provide your customers with a seamless selling solution by partnering with Windsor Jewelers, Inc.

SourcingJun 23, 2022
Rough Diamond Sales Rise Again for De Beers

Sales were up 36 percent year-over-year in June and are pacing 24 percent ahead of last year at this point.

AuctionsJun 23, 2022
Auction House Freeman’s Appoints First Rep in Florida

Kate Della Monica, a senior specialist in the Jewelry and Watches department, will relocate to the Sunshine State.

Lab-GrownJun 22, 2022
LVMH Luxury Ventures Sinks Money Into Lab-Grown Diamond Start-Up

LVMH’s investment arm has taken a stake in Lusix, a lab-grown diamond company based in Israel.

AuctionsJun 22, 2022
Here’s How Two 100-Plus-Carat Diamonds Did at Auction

Sotheby’s New York put a colorless diamond and a fancy deep orange-brown diamond up for sale last week, with mixed results.

CrimeJun 22, 2022
Leviev Diamonds Launches Bracelet to Help ‘Tinder Swindler’ Victims

Profits will help them recoup financial losses.

MajorsJun 22, 2022
Swarovski Names First Non-Family CEO

Retail veteran Alexis Nasard will step in as CEO on July 4.

SourcingJun 22, 2022
Edward Asscher to Remain WDC President for Another Year

The organization also extended the terms of Vice President Feriel Zerouki and Treasurer Ronnie VanderLinden.

ColumnistsJun 21, 2022
State of the Majors 2022: Reflections on Resilience

After suffering a professional setback, columnist Peter Smith reflects on our ability to bounce back even when the hits keep on coming.

IndependentsJun 21, 2022
Jeweler Tommy Glatz, Known for Being Creative and Kind, Dies at 68

Glatz owned and operated Glatz Jewelers in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania for more than 40 years.

Events & AwardsJun 21, 2022
24 Karat Club of Southern California Will Honor These Industry Leaders

The organization will present three awards at its annual dinner, dance, and gala in October.

MajorsJun 21, 2022
David Yurman Hires Chief of People, Strategy

Former McKinsey partner Emily Yueh marks new president Evan Yurman’s first hire.

TrendsJun 17, 2022
Britney Spears Wore Over $500K of Stephanie Gottlieb Diamonds at Her Wedding

The New York jeweler also made the pop star’s wedding bands.

AuctionsJun 17, 2022
5-Carat Paraiba Tourmaline Ring to Hit the Auction Block

It’s predicted to sell for up to $484,000 during the Bonhams Hong Kong Jewels and Jadeite auction on June 22.

Events & AwardsJun 17, 2022
WJA Foundation to Offer Tech Scholarships for Women of Color

The recipient will receive up to $17,500 toward a tech-focused certification or program of their choice.

CollectionsJun 17, 2022
Piece of the Week: Gemella’s ‘Stella’ Necklace

It’s as versatile as it is glamorous.

Supplier BulletinJun 16, 2022
HiBid Is A Jewelry Lover’s Best Friend

Sponsored by HiBid

TechnologyJun 16, 2022
Cartier, Amazon Suing ‘Influencer,’ Sellers Over Counterfeit ‘Love’ Jewelry

The alleged scheme involving fake “Love” bracelets, necklaces and rings was designed to circumvent Amazon’s counterfeit detection tools.

MajorsJun 16, 2022
Helzberg CEO Beryl Raff to Retire

Chief Financial Officer Brad Hampton will take over as the retailer’s new CEO.

CollectionsJun 16, 2022
Kirk Kara Unveils ‘Rayana’ Collection, New Bridal Styles at Luxury Show

Its new collection with subtle swirl designs draws inspiration from the family’s Armenian roots.

×

This site uses cookies to give you the best online experience. By continuing to use & browse this site, we assume you agree to our Privacy Policy